Race is 'America's Achilles' heel,' Harris tells African-American group

Presidential candidate and California Sen. Kamala Harris speaks at the 2019 National Action Network National Convention in New York. (Photo: Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
Presidential candidate and California Sen. Kamala Harris speaks at the 2019 National Action Network National Convention in New York. (Photo: Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Sen. Kamala Harris told one of the nation’s largest African-American male fraternities Saturday that the issue of race and racism is “America’s Achilles’ heel” and that Russia will try to exploit this weakness.

Harris, a top contender for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020, made the comment in the context of discussing Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, which she said was “a campaign of misinformation targeted on America’s Achilles’ heel, which is race, and focused on black folks.”

Harris’s comment matched the findings of an investigation by a Senate committee into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Harris spoke to a gathering of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity’s international leadership conference inside a ballroom at Harrah’s casino. Benjamin Crump, a civil rights attorney, introduced Harris as a “trailblazer” who is on a “historic journey” to become “the first woman of color to be president.”

Her mention of America’s vulnerability to racial division follows a similar comment on Friday in an appearance on a radio show.

Russian agents wanted to “break whatever unity exists” among Americans and tested different messages “to see what can get the American public going at each other, pointing fingers at each other,” Harris said on “The Breakfast Club,” a popular radio show on Power 105, a New York hip-hop station.

“Guess what gains the most heat?” Harris said. “Race.”

She predicted that Russia will try to do the same thing in the 2020 election. “They did it then. They will do it now,” she said.

Harris did not elaborate Saturday on what she or others should do to combat racial division. Her speech here reflected her larger campaign strategy of defending her career as a prosecutor —a job sometimes viewed skeptically by some in minority communities that are distrustful of the criminal justice system — and laying out her arguments against President Trump.

Speaking inside the casino, just down the hall from slot machines, gambling tables and an indoor pool throbbing with techno music, Harris addressed an audience of several hundred mostly suit-and-tie-clad Omegas. There were, however, several dozen African-American women in the audience near the front of the room.

One of those women, Nicole Dookie, a speech therapist from Monmouth, N.J., came with her husband, who is a member of Omega Psi Phi. Dookie, who has one daughter still in college and another who recently graduated, said that “we need to come together” to defeat Trump in 2020 but voiced some concern that Harris’s gender may be an obstacle for some men.

During Harris’s speech, Dookie said, she turned to her husband and his friends and asked them, “Can you see a woman as president?” They didn’t respond in the moment, she said, but added that she worries that some men will hesitate to support Harris because she is a woman.

Dookie said she had been leaning slightly toward former Vice President Joe Biden before seeing Harris in person, because she knew who he was and because he had served eight years with President Barack Obama. After seeing Harris, however, Dookie said she was “in love” with Harris. “I’m just so glad I was here,” she said.

Harris spoke at length about how her decision to become a prosecutor was viewed skeptically by some in her own family, which is steeped in civil rights activism.

“At best they found it a curious decision, and with some of them I had to defend this decision like I would a thesis,” Harris said.

“I said, ‘Do we always and only have to be on the outside, trying to change it from the outside, banging down the door on bended knee?’” Harris explained. “‘Can we also be thinking about being on the inside where the decisions are being made?’”

She went on to describe some ways in which she sought to prevent injustices as a prosecutor, to use the “unilateral power of discretion that prosecutors have to make decisions about life and death” responsibly and justly. Harris, as described in a 2016 New York Times profile, was viewed to have a mixed record on these matters by those who watched her career as a district attorney in San Francisco, and then as California’s attorney general, closely.

“When I went inside the system, it was about fighting for the people, and there were some tough fights,” Harris said.

Her appearance in New Jersey capped off a two-week period in which she has surged in the polls on the momentum of her June 27 Miami debate performance, where she criticized Biden for his opposition to forced busing of public school students in the 1970s. Harris talked of her own experience as a girl being bused to school in California. When Biden struggled to respond, Harris made a passionate case for the role the federal government has played historically in stepping in when local governments are unwilling to end discrimination.

Harris is still behind Biden, who remains the clear frontrunner, but is positioned to claim many of the voters who are with Biden now if he fades. Meanwhile, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders are battling for dominance of the party’s left flank.

At the Atlantic City event, Harris’s message appeared to resonate.

Lynda Sanders, of Laurel, Md., told Yahoo News that Harris has shown a toughness that gives her confidence in the former prosecutor’s chances, and said Harris’s confrontation of Biden demonstrated personal courage and debating skill.

“She was very selective in how she said it, but it was something that needed to be addressed,” Sanders said. “I was always a supporter, but it made me know that she wasn’t afraid to address what may be an unaddressable situation to others.”

When asked if Harris can beat Trump, Sanders paused several beats before answering in the affirmative. “Yes,” she said. “She’s not afraid.”

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